William Shatner—or at least his name—is boldly going where no human or spacecraft has gone before.
The legendary Star Trek actor is flying his name through the solar system on a memory card aboard NASA’s Parker Solar Probe along with over a million others from everywhere on Earth. He will, at least in spirit, float in space for seven years as the probe does 24 flybys within 3.9 million miles of the sun. That is the closest anything we’ve ever sent out of the atmosphere has come to the 10-million-degree fireball. Seven times closer.
"The first-ever spacecraft to the sun, NASA's Parker Solar Probe, will launch this year on a course to orbit through the heat of our star's corona, where temperatures are greater than 1 million degrees," Shatner said in a NASA video earlier this year. "The spacecraft will also carry my name to the sun, and your name, and the names of everyone who wants to join this voyage of extreme exploration."
The $1.5 billion probe will take off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on July 31. It is equipped with a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield that will act as the ultimate SPF to protect the sensitive instruments inside from 2,500-degree temperatures (it gets that searing even several million miles from the sun) and radiation levels 475 times more intense than anything our planet gets hit with.
Observations made by the Parker Solar Probe will include solar structure, electric and magnetic fields, and the gusts of charged particles, otherwise known as solar winds, that blasted the atmosphere off Mars. So long as they don’t get scorched, those instruments will help scientists here on Earth shed light on the mysteries of how solar winds accelerate and why the sun’s corona is so much hotter than its surface. Not that the surface is exactly cool at close to 10,000 degrees.
Also saved on that memory card are photos of the probe’s namesake, heliophysicist Eugene Parker, who proposed some mind-blowing concepts about how stars release material into space. This was back in 1958, when science was still in the dark about stellar winds and they can affect the habitability of planets orbiting that particular star.
“This summer,” Shatner intoned, “we’re going to touch the sun.”
If you beamed your name to NASA by April 27 and scored a hot ticket to the probe (for free!), you’re going with him.